Issue 12 - November 2016
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From The Editor's Desk / by Jason Snell

Computers are awesome!

Jason

By Jason Snell

There’s been a lot of existential angst about the Mac lately. Turns out the only thing worse for the mood of Mac users than no new Mac announcements was… the announcement of new Macs. I’m not going to recap the furor and arguments about the details of the new MacBook Pro models (or the lack of updates to other languishing Mac models) in this space--they’re well covered elsewhere, including on Six Colors and every other site and podcast that talks about technology.

Instead, I wanted to back up a couple of steps and, from a perspective where I have a slightly better chance of seeing the forest rather than just the tree trunk we just smashed into, talk about how great today’s computers are. You heard me. In the face of a declining PC market and the ascension of the smartphone as the primary computing device for most of the planet, let me inject you with a shot of enthusiasm about that most boring of technology products: the personal computer.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I love my iPhone and my iPad. And I’m happy to travel with just my iPad Pro when I can manage it. But that doesn’t take away from how much I love the device I’m using to write this article: an original (2014 model) 5K iMac.

We think of computers as a stagnant, even moribund category, but if you compare today’s computers to those of even five years ago, you will be amazed at how far they’ve come.

Let’s start with Retina displays. It took time for high-resolution displays to make it to the Mac. For several years it always seemed like they were on track for the next year’s WWDC, but it took until 2012 for the Retina MacBook Pro to premiere. Today Apple sells Macs with Retina displays in five different sizes--three in laptops, two in iMacs.

It’s easy to get used to a Retina display and forget just how amazing it is. But my laptop’s still an 11-inch MacBook Air, and every time I open it I’m taken aback by the low-resolution screen that used to be de rigeuer for Macs. Once a month I have to switch my iMac into low-resolution mode for a few hours for a very particular (and boring) reason, and for the entire session everything just seem wrong. Retina displays rule at sharp text and gorgeous images. I wouldn’t go back.

Then let’s move on to solid-state drives (SSDs), what Apple calls “flash storage.” For years, the slowest part of most computers was the hard drive. Spinning hard drives are slow and unreliable, but they’re cheap--and the slower, the cheaper. The moment I got a MacBook Air that only had an SSD inside, it was a revelation. Everything was quieter and faster. My iMac is equipped with a 512GB SSD, and it is similarly fast and responsive. Newer models are even faster, owing to increases in the transfer speed across the bus that the SSD is connected to.

The new MacBook Pros have USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 3. There was a time when we needed different ports for different kinds of peripherals--USB for this, FireWire or Thunderbolt for that. (Old-school Mac users might even remember when we had different peripherals for ADB, Serial, and SCSI.) USB-C with Thunderbolt 3 boils that all down--there’s a single connector type, and it’ll do just about everything. It’s powerful and versatile enough to drive an external 5K display over one cable, while that very same cable is supplying power back to the laptop it’s attached to. And of course, USB-C is a port style without an orientation, so you don’t have to look at your cable and the port and make sure the right end is up before you plug it in. It’s so much better on almost every front than anything we’ve had before.

And that doesn’t even address something new like the Touch Bar in the MacBook Pro, which is a whole OLED multitouch display powered by its own custom processor and offering contextual controls for the apps you’re using. That’s new tech still a-birthing, but it’s an almost sci-fi addition to the catalog of Mac input methods. And right next to it is a Touch ID sensor, another big upgrade to the Mac experience imported from iOS.

So today’s computers are actually pretty awesome… when they can be. The problem is price. These new technologies all come at a cost, and Apple has margins to protect. Apple still sells iMacs with spinning disk drives in them--not even hybrid Fusion Drives!--as a cost-saving measure. The non-Retina MacBook Air remains in the laptop price list so that Apple can hit a $999 opening price for the MacBook line. The MacBook Pro with Touch Bar starts at $1799 for the base-model 13-inch edition.

What I’m saying is, the personal computer has actually improved quite a lot in the last few years. And even Apple, which largely avoids the low end of the market, has failed to spread those improvements across its entire product line. I hope it will in the next few years. Computers can still be awesome. But that awesomeness may be too dear for some buyers.

[Got a comment? Drop me a line at jsnell@sixcolors.com.]

What I Use

Traveling Abroad

By Dan Moren

Dan in India

Traveling halfway around the world has been a bit different from any trip I’ve undertaken in the past, and while I’ve packed most of my usual travel gear, I’ve also found that I’ve needed to make some specific additions and alterations in order to accommodate this journey. So here are a few of the software and hardware tools that I’ve recently added to my collection to make my traveling life just a little bit easier. (And honestly, these are just the tools I use for getting work done—when it comes to actual tools to aid in the traveling process, well, that’s a whole different story.)

Software

Cloak (iOS, macOS): When your travels involve spending a lot of time on unfamiliar Wi-Fi networks, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a worthwhile investment: it makes sure that all your data is secure from prying eyes or malicious snoopers. I’ve spent a while setting up my own personal home VPN, and while I still use it (and it works great, for the most part), it has a few limitations. For one, OS X Server’s VPN service sometimes just...stops running. A restart of the service via screen sharing or the command line generally fixes it, but that can be annoying when you’re counting on it to work. Likewise, if my home computer becomes inaccessible for any reason, I’ve also lost access to my VPN. Those are just a few of the reasons I’ve turned to Cloak, a VPN service and client that I’ve been a fan of since my Macworld days.

Here’s what I like about Cloak: First off, it’s available on both Mac and iOS devices and one subscription (for which Cloak offers a few different plans—I opted for an unlimited 30-day pass for $10 that will cover the bulk of my trip) covers logging in on any and all of them. Secondly, Cloak is smart: it lets you designate trusted Wi-Fi networks—when connected to anything but a trusted Wi-Fi network, it will automatically start the VPN as soon as you connect. Since a VPN is only handy if you remember to turn it on, that’s a great feature for the forgetful among us. Finally, Cloak’s built-in Transporter feature lets you choose which of several VPNs around the world you’re logged in to, meaning that you can still be “in” the U.S., even when you’re not. (Some services, like Hulu and Netflix, do check if you’re using a VPN or other proxy service to access content outside of the licensed area, so this may not help you stream while away from home.)

TripMode (macOS): When Jason wrote up this app earlier this year, I’ll admit I kind of skimmed over it. But it’s been a godsend on this trip, where not only are Wi-Fi networks often very bandwidth limited, but I’ve also often had to fall back to data-capped cellular data plans. The $8 TripMode is kind of like the Cellular section of your iPhone’s Settings app, letting you choose exactly which apps can access the network. Once activated, TripMode will blink when an app that’s not on the list tries to access the network; if you want to allow it, you just check the box next to an app to let it go through; everything else remains shut down. You can see how much data each of your apps is consuming and temporarily turn off anything that’s sucking up too much of your bandwidth. It’s earned its weight in gold a few times over at this point; I can’t recommend it enough.

The Clock (macOS): I just wrote a post on this app the other day, but it’s worth quickly mentioning the $5 The Clock again. I really find it useful to have current time zone information available at a click for all the places where I routinely talk to people. And I absolutely love that it blends right into my menu bar and looks identical to the system clock.

Hardware

Bose QuietComfort 35: A few years back, I briefly had a hand-me-down pair of Sennheiser noise-canceling iPhones, but they didn’t end up lasting too long. I didn’t replace them at the time, because as much as I liked the noise-canceling features, they seemed like a luxury. That said, when you’re looking down the barrel of a couple day-long plane flights, you start thinking pretty hard about the line between luxury and mental well-being. So I bought myself a pair of Bose’s $350 QuietComfort 35 noise-canceling headphones.

I have no regrets.

The QC 35s are big, no question: they’re over-ear headphones that provide a decent amount of isolation even before you activate the noise-canceling features. When do you do switch them on, it turns those uniform background noises—plane engines, for example—into essentially nothing. More sporadic noises, like a baby crying or the person next to you coughing, will still come through, but even they get considerably dampened. I opted for the 35s, which are Bluetooth, rather than the 25s, thanks to their ability to pair with two devices at once (including my headphone jack-less iPhone 7), and the fact they also have a fallback wired connection. I love that they fold up and nestle perfectly into the included carrying case. The price may be a premium, but in my experience with them so far, they’re a premium product that’s well worth the cost.

Audio Technica ATR-2100: Coincidentally enough, this $80 USB/XLR microphone is the one Jason just recommended for a sub-$100 podcast studio. It also happens to be a pretty solid and compact microphone, which makes it ideal if you need to do some podcasting on the go. Since it includes a small (if cheap, plastic) tripod and mount, all you need to add is an inexpensive windscreen; connect it to a Mac (or iOS device) via USB for all your podcasting needs. I can even plug my Bose QC 35’s wired connection into the monitor port, so I don’t have to resort to my compact travel headphones, which definitely bleed more sound.

By Request

Anniversaries

Macworld

By Jason Snell

Several people wrote in to suggest that I lean in to the fact that I’ve been writing about Apple for two decades and regale you with stories of the olden times. I try not to do this too often, to be honest, because in my mind I’m still the MacUser intern who appalled everyone else at the office with his youth. Where did the time go? You do your job for a few years and then you look up to discover that you’re a witness to history.

Anyway, I don’t have good Steve Jobs stories like my friend James Thomson has good Steve Jobs Stories. But I do have a story about Apple’s perspective on its own history, and how that has evolved over time. And yeah, Steve Jobs is in it.

So in early 1984 when the Mac first arrived, I was in eighth grade. (See, I’m actually very young.) My family didn’t even have an Apple II yet, though we got one the next year. I didn’t lay eyes on a Mac until maybe 1985, when I saw one at the West Coast Computer Faire, which I went to (a three-hour drive each way!) with my best friend Crispin Holland and his dad. All I really remember about the Mac was seeing a game playing on its screen and being boggled by how high-resolution the graphics were, and how shocking it was that they weren’t in color.

My perspective on the Mac’s first decade is skewed by my age and inexperience. I didn’t use a Mac regularly until 1987. My high-school newspaper used Microsoft Word to typeset its articles, and then we ran them over on floppy disks to the photography and yearbook classroom, where there was a LaserWriter we could use to print them out. Then we’d cut out the stories, put wax on the back of them, and put them down on the pages of the paper. (Okay, now I feel old as the hills.)

I didn’t really use a Mac as anything other than a text-entry tool until my sophomore year of college, the fall of 1989, when I joined my college newspaper and immediately fell in love with the Mac. We had a battery of Mac SEs and one Mac IIcx that we used to write (in Word) and lay out (in PageMaker) the paper. By the end of the year I had stopped using my Apple II and worked exclusively on the Macs at the newspaper office. That spring I went down to the UCSD Bookstore and dipped into my own college savings to buy a Mac SE. I was hooked. It was the spring of 1990. The Mac had already existed for six years before I became a Mac user.

I started full-time at MacUser magazine in January of 1994, so professionally I missed the first decade of the Mac entirely. I have no idea if there were celebrations. Those were the System 7 days, and the time of the transition from 680x0 processors to PowerPC processors was going on. Windows was growing in popularity, and Windows 95 lurked around the corner (I can remember the first time I saw Windows, too--on the screen of a Tandy PC clone in a college dorm room. I was not impressed.)

The next decade of the Mac was all about lows and highs. In January 1994 Apple was pushing the Newton and the Mac was sliding—but hadn’t quite slid—into the abyss just yet. In January 2004, the iPod was an enormous success, the Mac was resurgent, and Steve Jobs was large and in charge. (And I now worked at Macworld, because in 1997 the publishers of both magazines decided that Apple was about to go out of business and they needed to cut their losses. Whoops!)

In early 2003, my boss was Rick LePage, who had previously run MacWEEK and had been called in to run Macworld. Rick and I were talking about the upcoming twentieth anniversary of the Mac, and one of us suggested that we needed to do a special issue, including an interview with Steve Jobs. When I asked Rick who he thought should interview him, he said I should.

I was not thrilled with this. Remind me to expound at greater length someday about all the ways I tried to avoid Steve Jobs, at Apple events and elsewhere. The guy was scary. (Ask James Thomson.) But Rick was right, I was probably the right person to interview Jobs.

Thus commenced a nearly year-long effort to get Apple to grant us a Steve Jobs interview for the cover of Macworld. I’m serious--the back and forth between us and Apple’s then-media maven Katie Cotton was slow and endless. For a very long time, I assumed we’d never get the interview.

And then, suddenly, in early December, Apple agreed to set up an interview. (I can only imagine what cajoling of Jobs must’ve happened on the other end. Keep in mind, this is the guy who responded to discovering that Apple had kept a museum of past artifacts by saying, “Get it away!” and shipping it all off to Stanford.)

But there were ground rules. Oh yes, there were. First, no questions about future products. Well, of course. Second, no questions about the past.

Wait, what now? The purpose of the interview was literally to talk about the 20th anniversary of the Mac. With no past and no future, what was I left with? A bunch of questions about where Apple was in the present, which didn’t seem very anniversary themed to me, but I’d take what I could get.

The day of my phone call with Steve, I waited in my office for the call. Earlier that day, IDG founder Pat McGovern stopped by the office for his annual visit and delivery of the Christmas bonus to employees. Between him and Jobs, I figure this was the only day in my life I’d chat with two billionaires.

My phone rang. It was Katie, telling me to wait for Steve. This was like getting a phone call from the President of the United States. Finally Steve got on the line, and I stumbled through my questions with him. He very clearly didn’t want to be there. His answers were mostly short, and mostly annoyed. After maybe five minutes, we were done. It was so short that we literally ran every word he said in the magazine. It was a verbatim transcription of the entire phone call.

(A funny aside about the insecurity of Mac users, and how it’s existed since the very beginning of the Mac and will probably exist until the end. One of my questions to Jobs in 2004 was about the popularity of the iPod and if Apple would continue to also focus on the Mac. People were really nervous that the iPod was the future of Apple and the Mac was going to be an afterthought. Jobs’s response was a dismissive “of course.”)

So there was one thing we did leave out of that verbatim interview transcript. When Jobs came back to Apple, he spent a couple of years as “interim CEO” before taking on the permanent CEO mantle formally in 2000. But he’d been back at Apple for nearly eight years at that point, and I wanted my last question to be about his personal future with Apple. I asked him if he expected to continue as CEO indefinitely or if he thought about finishing his work and moving on. I don’t remember how I phrased it, exactly, but it was an open-ended question. I really just expected him to talk about his commitment to Apple and how their work wasn’t done yet, not by a long shot.

Instead, there was a dramatic pause on the line and then Jobs, in a much less cranky and more contemplative voice than I heard in the rest of the interview, said: “Well, you know, like the poet says, we’re all just renting time here on Planet Earth.”

That was it. The end of the interview. And five minutes after we were done, Katie Cotton called back to ask--well, let’s be honest, she demanded--that the last question and answer be stricken from the record. It was a weird interaction, but hey, it was kind of a weird exchange anyway, so I agreed.

It was much later that I realized that my interview with Jobs had taken place after his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, but before it was revealed publicly. In his graduation speech at Stanford, he described how he was told to get his affairs in order, which was code for “you’re going to die”--and quickly. But then a biopsy revealed he had an unusual form of pancreatic cancer, and he was able to survive for eight more years.

So here he was, struggling with his cancer diagnosis (and by many accounts, resisting conventional treatment) and having at least briefly thought that his death was imminent. And I ask him about his future.

He handled it well, I think. Like the poet says, every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time. Who knows how long any of us have? But still, if you’re Katie Cotton, you’re trying to suppress any hint that there’s anything wrong with Steve Jobs until the moment you’re ready to reveal the truth. I had no idea what I had stepped into.

Fast forward 10 years. It’s 2014, Steve Jobs has passed away, and it’s the 30th anniversary of the Mac. No laying of groundwork required here: Apple offered me an in-person interview with Phil Schiller, Craig Federighi, and original Mac team member Bud Tribble, in the briefing center at Apple. The past and present were on full display. They all wanted to show Apple’s commitment to the Mac, in the face of the wild success of yet another non-Mac product--the iPhone.

It was a great discussion and I quote from it once or twice a year. It was also a breathtakingly different conversation than the one I had a decade before. So I can say this: the post-Jobs Apple has definitely been more comfortable with discussing the past than during the Jobs era.

One final note about anniversaries. I had always been intrigued by Macworld’s original cover photo, which was Steve Jobs with three Macs. It was reprinted endlessly, often with the Macworld logo cut off! (Bad form.) In the run-up to the 25th anniversary, Rob Schultz (my Art Director at Macworld) discovered that the photographer of the original cover still lived in the Bay Area. We contacted him about reprinting the photo, and he said that he still had the film and we could re-scan it.

That’s the image on the 25th anniversary cover of Macworld. A new scan, at much better quality, of that original iconic image. And in a way, a fitting monument not just to the computer in the photo, but to the man behind the computer.

The @ismh file / by Stephen Hackett

Two Macs

For years, I've been the user of a single Mac. I subscribed to the idea that the best setup was the most MacBook Pro I could afford, coupled with a big screen on my desk. When I needed to work elsewhere, I'd undock the computer and have my entire setup with me on the go.

I recently threw all of this out the window. I wanted a Retina screen on my desk, and a smaller, lighter notebook to carry with me out of the office.

I picked up a refurbished 27-inch 5K iMac to use in my office and studio space. Refurbished Macs come with the same warranty as new computers, and I was able to save over $500 on this particular machine.

When it came in, I sold my 15-inch MacBook Pro to a buddy and ended up with the new 13-inch MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar.

The MacBook Pro is for when I work out of the office, and I do need my podcasting software (Skype, Audio Hijack, Logic) on it for when I travel and need to work.

Like the iMac, I'm really enjoying it, but I have been forced to deal with aspects of my setup that are different now that I have two Macs. Thankfully, that's easier to do than ever.

Almost everything on my iMac is saved in my Dropbox folder. I've paid for Dropbox Pro and the 1TB of storage it affords for a long time. With selective sync, I can have a subset of these files on my MacBook Pro's much smaller SSD, and just log in to Dropbox on the web if I need something that I haven't synced down. Because the bulk of my working files are already there, I can start an article or work on an agreement with a podcast sponsor on one computer — or even my iPad — and pick it up on any of my other devices.

Dropbox also serves as the backend sync service for several apps I use, like Alfred. My settings for that utility are the same on both of my Macs, which goes a long way toward my sanity.

iCloud is another huge part of this setup. While I don't use iCloud Drive for file storage, my contacts, calendars, notes and bookmarks all sync with the service.

I recently imported my photo library into Photos.app and turned on iCloud Photo Library. I have my iMac download the full-res version of everything, and my MacBook Pro just downloads on demand like my iOS devices. It works really well; I can have my entire library on my desktop (and back it up there) and anything I need is just a click or tap (and a quick download) away on the go.

Beyond Dropbox and iCloud, Gmail has my personal and work email in Mail.app, so that's sorted pretty easily. 1Password for Families and Teams means my personal and work passwords are everywhere I am. My task manager, Todoist, comes with its own sync, as does my RSS service of choice, Feedbin.

Of course, there are things that just don't sync. Most programs have preferences that are just local, so there were some things I had to manually set up on the new notebook to match my iMac. Now that they are done, I don't have to worry about it.

All in all, this hasn't introduced as much friction as I thought it might. I can work at either computer, and enjoy the best desktop Apple has for sale, as well as a thin and light notebook when I need it.

[Stephen Hackett is co-founder of Relay FM and writer of 512 Pixels.]

The back page / by Dan Moren

Design by the Book

Dan

In the most surprising Apple announcement since the total and utter lack of a new Mac Pro this year, Cupertino released with little-to-no fanfare a hardbound book chronicling its designs over the last two decades. While certainly a triumph of the impressive work done by Jony Ive and his team, the book raised some eyebrows because it was priced—like any Apple product—at a premium: $199 for a small version of the hardback, and $299 for a larger version (they really missed a chance to call it the Designed By Apple in California+). And, of course, you can only buy the book online from Apple or in person at Apple stores—and only certain, handpicked Apple stores at that.

Naturally, as Apple goes, so goes the technology market. Plenty of Cupertino’s competitors are no doubt about to roll out competing products of their own, and with the holiday shopping season about to start in earnest, you should keep your eye out for these other fine options for the technology fans in your family who maybe aren’t that crazy about Apple.

Designed by Microsoft in Washington Charting the course of the Redmond company’s history, it’s assembled in a scrapbook style, cobbled together from a bunch of different sources, from Bill Gates’s early code to Steve Ballmer’s drawings on cocktails napkins. Some pages appearing to be slightly rougher versions of similar-looking pages from Apple’s book. It’s only being sold as a paperback, and the cover makes it look like something you’re less likely to display on a coffee table, and more like something you’ll shove in with those economics textbooks from college that you keep even though you’ll never read again. On the upside, it’s cheap and available absolutely everywhere books are sold. Wait a little bit and they might even be trying to give them away.

Designed by BlackBerry in Waterloo This vintage-looking, leather-bound tome is written entirely on vellum. It’s also formatted in a small, difficult to read font, but everybody who owns a copy swears that they would never ever throw it out, even as it starts to dry rot and crumble into dust. Aficionados gather regularly in support groups to complain how the genius of the book was unrecognized, especially for its physical page-turning features.

Designed by Google on the Moon Colorful and egnaging, Google’s book is an entertainment experience, with fold-out leaves, scratch and sniff patches, and pop-up dioramas. Contains a book plate into which you can write your name, age, address, email address, phone number, social security number, blood type, height and weight, and the names of the last fifteen people you’ve corresponded with. There’s also a detailed schematic of Google’s Mars habitat, its teleportation technology, and its plans for eternal life. Basically complete fiction.

Designed by Motorola in a Vacuum Slightly dog-eared mass market paperback that’s mostly just a jumble of patent information and schematic drawings. Very expensive, but it’s never really bought or sold so much as just traded back and forth between a few people in the know; each time it moves to a new owner, a few handfuls of pages get ripped out.

Designed by Samsung in South Korea Just a packet of black-and-white photocopies of Apple’s book. Doused in lighter fluid.

[Dan was designed in Massachusetts and a book he wrote will be published in 2017. Send feedback to dan@sixcolors.com and at dmoren.com. Column photo by Mary Gordon.]

Stories you may have missed

Here are links to some of the more notable Six Colors stories from the last month.

MacBook Pro with Touch Bar review: Keyboard chameleon

Introducing the Touch Bar.

Review: On the road with the 13-inch MacBook Pro

Jason reviews the "MacBook Escape."

The Retina divide

Charting Apple's recent price hikes.

Go Play: Gunpoint

A “stealth-based puzzle-platform” game you should play.

A podcast studio for under $100

Jason's got a new top microphone pick.

The Clock helps you keep an eye on time zones

Good to keep up with time zones.

Achieving Escape Velocity on macOS Sierra

Yes, Dan found a way to play this old game on macOS Sierra.

Getting off the macOS beta train—this time, for real

Jane, Jane, stop this crazy thing!

Perpendicular philosophy

Why Apple does what it does what the Mac--and Microsoft doesn't. And vice versa.

And so ends the November 2016 issue of Six Colors Magazine. Send your feedback to jsnell@sixcolors.com. Feel free to pass this issue on to a friend if you like! If you're not a Six Colors subscriber and you're reading this, please subscribe!
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